Techniques for Capturing Birds in Flight

MsmotoMsmoto Posts: 5,398Moderator
edited April 2014 in General Discussions
I have not been able to find a current thread on the techniques of successful capturing of birds in flight. My first attempt at the Carolina Raptor Center was shooting at 1/1250 sec, AF-C 9 point. 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII Nikkor. D4. 9 FPS. The birds were coming toward me at a 30° angle, and there was no choice as to the angle as we were given only small lee-way as to position.

After not being able obtain focus on the very fast moving birds with a few exceptions, I finally changed to the 3-D focus, but unfortunately this was the end of the session. It could be the problem was the distance the birds were…the release from about thirty feet, flying by as close as 5 feet, thus creating only a second or two for the exposures to be captured.

So, if there are any folks who wish to share their experience on capturing BIF…. I am all ears. ^:)^
Msmoto, mod


  • PB_PMPB_PM Posts: 4,494Member
    edited April 2014
    Just a few thoughts, based on 5 years of shooting birds. I wouldn't consider myself an expert, since I am not anywhere near as good at BIF as say, Coastal.

    With the newer cameras (D4/D800/D7100 etc) avoid dynamic AF, it seems to put too much emphases on the outer points. Even 9 point dynamic is far to jumpy for my liking. Don't use 3D tracking, unless you subject is against a solid background (clear blue sky), since it will loose the subject far to often. Even in a situation with a solid background, you will need to stop down to F10 or more, because you're first goal is to have the bird's eye in focus. (Note F10 is a reference to what you'd want to work with if you use 3D tracking, not a general purpose aperture for BIF shooting). Kind of hard to do if you are letting the camera choose the focus area!

    To be honest, you are much better off learning to track the subject with one point, as hard as that will be. Also, you need to learn how the bird you are shooting flies. Each type of bird has different flight characteristics, and that will effect how you track your subject.

    Practice and lots of it is the best advice anyone can give you. Start out with something slower, like mallards and work your way up to faster falcons, hawks and eagles.
    Post edited by PB_PM on
    If I take a good photo it's not my camera's fault.
  • Vipmediastar_JZVipmediastar_JZ Posts: 1,708Member
    edited April 2014
    How do you guys choose the light backlit, sidelit, etc?
    I'm ready with the 70-200 to try some BIF
    Post edited by Vipmediastar_JZ on
  • JMVJMV Posts: 1Member
    The hardest part of taking pictures of BIF is tracking the bird in the viewfinder. This is especially difficult when using long lenses. A tripod with a gimbal head can be very useful here.
    As to autofocus settings, I tend to use 9-pt DF. I agree that 3D tracking doesn’t work well for BIF. Stopping down a bit will aid with keeping the bird’s head in focus as suggested earlier, but I would never go as far as f10 since this will likely severely limit your shutter speed, which needs to be high if you want a sharp picture. I tend to use f5.6.

  • snakebunksnakebunk Posts: 993Member
    edited April 2014
    I find it hard to photograph flying birds, but here are some thoughts that came to my mind.

    Focus issues:
    * Use continuous focus.
    * Use all focus points if you need, fewer if you can.
    * Avoid shooting birds when they come towards you or fly away from you. If you do you may have to lock the focus at one point.

    Shutter issues:
    * Use fast shutter speed but experiment with slower (a sharp eye with unsharp wings can be really nice).
    * Follow the bird (pan) smoothly.
    * Use highest possible fps and have a large buffer :)

    Artistic issues:
    * Avoid shooting straight up in the air.
    * Avoid boring skies.
    * Try to get to the same height as the birds.
    * Try to have the sun in your back or shoot into the light if you have a dark background. Avoid sidelit birds.

    * I always try to be prepared for flying birds. If I find a sitting bird I usually have time to change settings.
    * I use a monopod and it works fine, but I think gimbals can be pretty great.
    * Watch out for indications that sitting birds are about to fly. They usually stretch their wings a few seconds before take off.
    * Watch out for ducks and geese suddenly taking off. It can be a sign of a bird of pray coming in.
    Post edited by snakebunk on
  • FritzFritz Posts: 140Member
    Back in 35 mil days I used a gunstock mount in shooting aerobatic aircraft. Perhaps that might have current relevance?
  • PB_PMPB_PM Posts: 4,494Member
    I would love to see someone hold a 600mm F4 with that. :-B
    If I take a good photo it's not my camera's fault.
  • scoobysmakscoobysmak Posts: 215Member
    edited April 2014
    Edit..noticed this was pretty much mentioned before but here was my take.....

    For anything moving like BIF or the recent Motorsports event I went to I have the best luck with the single af point in the center and CF for the auto focus setting. This doesn't help if your trying to get the rule of 3rds but a shot you can crop is way better than a shot out of focus. I tried the 3D tracking and since I had so many objects in the way the camera was totally lost. If your back ground and subject are totally different and stay that way, like a dark bird in a light blue sky, I have had decent results with the 3D tracking but once the bird flies in front of a tree or mountain in the background all bets were off.
    Post edited by scoobysmak on
  • AdeAde Posts: 1,071Member
    IMHO you actually don't want use a video rig like the Marauder for BIF.

    Video rigs are designed for the opposite use -- to make a rigid, stable, horizontal platform. For BIF you want to be able to move freely both horizontally and vertically.

    Think of shooting a rifle vs. shooting a shotgun. With a rifle you want the most stable platform with the least amount of movement. With a shotgun you want the freedom to move, track and follow-through.

    The Marauder's "gunstock" is designed to press against your chest (not shoulder) and it would be very uncomfortable to shoot high angles with it for an extended amount of time. It's also not designed to shoot in portrait mode.

    As well, video rigs like the Marauder are designed so that your dominant hand is off the camera, holding the rig. That means you can't press the shutter button!! For video this is not an issue because you typically just hit the record button once and let it roll. For stills this would be most inconvenient!

    There's a company called BushHawk (Europe) selling shoulder mounts which might be more appropriate for BIF. (I've never used them). BushHawk (US) appears to be out of business.

    There's probably an opportunity for an entrepreneur to design & market a new BIF-friendly shoulder mount.
  • PB_PMPB_PM Posts: 4,494Member
    IMHO you actually don't want use a video rig like the Marauder for BIF.
    Totally agree. I think it would be somewhat hilarious to see someone try though. :))
    If I take a good photo it's not my camera's fault.
  • HipShotHipShot Posts: 528Member
    I've had good luck using this fellow's suggestions. There's a nice summary settings checklist at the end:
  • PhotobugPhotobug Posts: 5,751Member
    My best results on the D300 was:
    9 or 21 focus point
    Continuous focus
    High shutter speed 1/600 and up, adjust ISO to get there at F5.6 to F8

    3D never gave me good results.

    Only done a little shooting with the D7100 of BIF. Did not like the results. I used:
    21 focus points
    Continuous focus

    Got terrible results with 3D. Looking for others using D7100 on what they use.
    D750 & D7100 | 24-70 F2.8 G AF-S ED, 70-200 F2.8 AF VR, TC-14E III, TC-1.7EII, 35 F2 AF D, 50mm F1.8G, 105mm G AF-S VR | Backup & Wife's Gear: D5500 & Sony HX50V | 18-140 AF-S ED VR DX, 55-300 AF-S G VR DX |
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  • CoastalconnCoastalconn Posts: 527Member
    edited April 2014
    Well, this thread sounds like it is right up my alley :) Here is how I shoot...
    Manual mode with auto-iso max 3200 on the D7100
    I generally shoot at F8 with my Sigma 120-300 and 2x TC for best sharpness
    I do not use single point
    I generally shoot AF-C 9 point
    For flying birds I shoot a minimum of 1/1000, for diving Ospreys I try to get to 1/1600th
    AF-lock long LONG!
    adjust EC as needed generally no more than +/- .7
    Why auto ISO?
    If I have a perched bird and it looks like it is going to take flight, I can count the clicks on my thumb wheel and know how many to get to 1/1000th
    I have found the modern AF systems are so sensitive in single point that if a bird's wings go from up to down and your focus point is on the upswept wing as soon as that wing goes down you are focused on the background...

    AF-C 9/21 As stated in the manual, the camera will use surrounding focus points to keep your subject in focus, not only does it use info, it uses the focus points themselves which I found out one day looking through images in viewnx2. I feel with 9 points they mostly cover your bird so if the focus point changes it does not grab the background...

    Almost every thread I read says AF-lock on OFF. The thing I found is that with AF-lock on set to off, if you slightly miss your target by a touch it instantly focuses on the background. I think people mis-interrupt the manual about abrupt distance changes. To me this says if a bird flies through a tree the camera will wait without changing AF distance until it picks up the bird again. With it set to long it works great. If you miss your target, just release AF-on (or shutter) and refocus on your bird...

    I generally shoot with release and you just get used to knowing when your bird is in focus..

    The other thing is just a ton! of practice. I shoot at 600mm handheld all the time and it is just second nature to point and have the bird in focus and track flights/dives...

    As far as light I always position my self to have the sun at my back ideally, especially early morning, late evening. Mid day can be tough unless you are close to level with the bird...

    I also tend to pre-focus at a distance I think a bird might appear at. Generally about 2/3 way out towards infinite..

    @Snakebunk. There are exceptions to your "artsy issues"...

    Blue Sky this was actually at F10 when I was having issues with the D7100
    Opening Day Osprey Season 2014 3

    Straight up
    Osprey with Fish Straight up

    I do agree about perspective 100%
    Bufflehead in flight

    The one thing you forgot is not to have people or man-made objects in your pictures... :) This was a release, not a captive bird
    Amazing release of a Snowy Owl!
    Post edited by Coastalconn on
  • MsmotoMsmoto Posts: 5,398Moderator

    Thanks, I was waiting for your reply. And, the focus lock on Long… I will give it a try. I had been using off. The 9 points AF-C is what I use for cars as well.

    Headed to the beach tomorrow…may well try catching a few BIF….
    Msmoto, mod
  • snakebunksnakebunk Posts: 993Member
    @Coastalconn: Nice pictures! The last two are my favorites. Looks like it works pretty well with people and birds together :)
  • manhattanboymanhattanboy Posts: 1,003Member
    Do you use the 1.3 crop mode at all to give you 1200 mm effective? Out of curiosity, if so do you adjust the shutter speed at all.
    The problem with the AF-lock ON is if the bird is moving towards or away from you. It will quickly punch through the in-focus DOF. At f8 it may be less of an issue, but if you are shooting 300mm+ at 5.6 or less then the DOF can be tiny depending on how far out the bird is, closer being worse of course.
    I use 21 points but only because I am too lazy to move the 9 points around during shooting. In 1.3 crop, 21 point covers the central third of the entire frame. Losing focus to background can become an issue though so I see the value of restricting to only 9 points.
  • pe1125pe1125 Posts: 5Member
    I wish I had all (or even some)of the answers, but I'm struggling myself. Lately I've been wrestling with VR issues on an AFS 80-400G VR on a D7100.

    What I can suggest is that a great place to practice is a model airplane flying site. I used to belong to an RC glider club and I recently went out to the field and had 4 hours of continuous shooting opportunities. If you want a tougher challenge, try tracking powered model airplanes, or if you need slower you can stick with the helicopter drones.
  • ChasCSChasCS Posts: 309Member
    edited April 2014
    Great thread, awesome helpful info, and with pics too...

    One of the BIF photos, I have seen on numerous websites, that always brings me a smile.

    Please have yourselves a safe and productive weekend all.

    Post edited by ChasCS on
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  • CoastalconnCoastalconn Posts: 527Member
    @Manattenboy. I generally don't use the crop mode because I try to fill the frame. I track many Ospreys coming straight at me and Af-lock on set to high. The key is the manual says abrupt changes in focal distance. A bird flying at you at one speed isn't abrupt.. It has worked well for me anyways :) i generally shoot at 600mm and f8 which has about 1/4 the DOF of 300 and F5.6..
  • manhattanboymanhattanboy Posts: 1,003Member
    @Manattanboy. I generally don't use the crop mode because I try to fill the frame. I track many Ospreys coming straight at me and Af-lock on set to high. The key is the manual says abrupt changes in focal distance. A bird flying at you at one speed isn't abrupt.. It has worked well for me anyways :) i generally shoot at 600mm and f8 which has about 1/4 the DOF of 300 and F5.6..
    You have convinced me.

    I will give it a shot with AF-lock tomorrow if I get a chance. Shooting non-crop mode on the 7100 as default is torture with that buffer... Maybe I should switch to CL instead of CH and fool myself into believing I am getting more frames ;)
  • CoastalconnCoastalconn Posts: 527Member
    Do you have a 95 mb/s sandisk? 12 bit compressed etc? I find the buffer at 10 shots then 3 fps is manageable..
  • PB_PMPB_PM Posts: 4,494Member
    Don't worry so much about high FPS. i started shooting birds on the D80, with 3.5FPS. All these BIF with the D80 and the old 11 point AF (single cross type).




    Now I tend to shoot birds with the D800 at 4FPS. Sometimes I think I did better with the lower end gear. :))
    If I take a good photo it's not my camera's fault.
  • [Deleted User][Deleted User] Posts: 0
    edited April 2014
    Lots and lots of patience is the key for me and of course the great tips from Coastalconn, changing the AF from off to - long - works much better for me. I 'am glad if I manage a good bif photo once or twice a year and the improved gear helps a lot.

    D300 with the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR


    I waited a long time, then this was one moment in time where I got a whole series of these. The "luck factor" I always depend on.
    Post edited by [Deleted User] on
    Those who say it can't be done, should not interrupt those doing it!
  • DaveRoboDaveRobo Posts: 2Member
    I never see anyone discussing the light meter. Big mistake. Most magazines seem to never mention this. Make sure you're using single point. If not the bird comes out under exposed. AF set to 5 or 9 to keep things fast. If you're having trouble with focus do give yourself more depth of field, F8 or larger.
  • CoastalconnCoastalconn Posts: 527Member
    @DaveRobo, valid point however not entirely true. It really depends on the lighting conditions. I use all three metering modes. It also depends on your subject, all white, all black, mixed colors, etc..
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